Opinion
Subscriber Only

Fintan O’Toole: 2021 – a year of miracles and disappointments in a new Age of Reason

Triumph of science is the big story this year, but we still struggle with the truth

These are the days of miracles and wonder. It just doesn’t feel all that miraculous or wonderful.

On the surface, 2021 feels more like the year of disappointment. The great moments of liberation and enlightenment that seemed to be promised at the beginning of the year didn’t quite happen.

We were supposed to be emerging from the long night of the Covid pandemic, showing our faces to the sun, unmasked and blissful with relief and gratitude. We thought by now we would no longer be a nation of amateur actuaries, doing daily risk assessments in our heads.

Yet here we are still steeped in anxiety, caution and uncertainty – another year older and deeper in weariness and frustration. Here we are watching ourselves, watching each other, unable to forget that there’s something in the air.

We find ourselves held hostage by the ancient Greek alphabet: alpha, delta, omicron. In this topsy-turvy world, the need for boosters is a downer. A state of emergency has become almost mundane. The virus that came to dinner is the unwelcome guest that will not go home.

This was also supposed to be the year when the world finally came to terms with the even greater existential threat of climate change. The Cop26 summit in Glasgow was to be a turning point, not just in history, but in our entire existence as a species.

Prophets are no longer wild men ranting in the desert or ecstatic visionaries in convent cells. They are meteorologists and oceanographers

Instead, it was lukewarm – lots of good things and serious commitments but too much dodging and ambiguity. The inability even to agree to phase out the burning of coal for power generation – the easiest and most obvious measure – was grim evidence of a persistent reluctance to face reality.

By “reality” we no longer mean the future. 2021 and the six years before it will be the seven hottest on record. Global sea levels reached new heights this year.

On August 14th, an amazing thing happened at Summit Station, the highest point on the Greenland ice sheet, 3,216 metres above sea level. It rained.

It doesn’t rain up there – it snows. But for nine hours that day, the temperature stayed above freezing and, for the first time on record, the water from the clouds fell in clear liquid drops, a hard rain for humanity.

On that very same day, Spain experienced its highest known temperatures: 47.4 degrees in Montoro and 42.7 degrees in Madrid, a city that it supposed to be relatively cool. Three days earlier, Sicily had suffered the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe (48.8 degrees).

Climate chaos created catastrophes across the world: terrible floods in Sudan, China, Germany and Belgium; droughts in Latin America; apocalyptic fires across the Mediterranean; the Dixie blaze in California that consumed 390,000 hectares over four months; malnutrition exacerbated by crop failures in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen, and Madagascar.

This has been the year in which the word “extreme” has rapidly lost its meaning in relation to natural disasters. How can events be extreme when they are becoming all too normal?

And yet coal-fired power generation increased by 22 per cent in the United States this year – the first rise since 2014. Deforestation in the Amazon was worse than it has been for 15 years, with 13,235sq kmof forest lost between August 2020 and July 2021. That’s the equivalent of all of Ireland’s two biggest counties, Cork and Galway.

Triumph for science

Horrific as all of this is, however, it is also – paradoxically – a triumph for science. There has never been a time in human history when one might have hoped more fervently that the scientists had made fools of themselves. Alas, they have been proven entirely right.

The thing we now know is that human beings can tell the future. Prophets are no longer wild men ranting in the desert or ecstatic visionaries in convent cells. They are meteorologists and oceanographers.

The song of ice and fire – and flood and drought – was written in 1990 in the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We are living in the future they warned us about and that we did almost nothing to avert.

This triumph of science has been the story of the pandemic too. Amidst all the disappointment and frustration, it is easy to forget that the speed and effectiveness of the creation, testing, production and distribution of vaccines against a wholly new disease is an astonishing achievement and surely among the greatest in medical history.

One of the difficulties with the understanding of vaccines, though, is that we are not very good at thinking about things that didn’t happen. Globally, immunisation saves from death roughly the equivalent of the population of Ireland every single year.

It is a glorious story, but one that has non-events at its heart. It has no grip on the collective imagination.

No generation that has ever lived has been able to predict the long-term consequences of its own behaviour in the way that we can do with climate change

In Ireland, by the beginning of December, the Covid vaccines had saved the lives of 9,074 people aged over 60 who would otherwise have died. That’s roughly the population of Dungarvan or Portmarnock or Tuam.

It’s more Irish people than were killed in the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in the War of Independence and in the Civil War – put together.

Conversely, the vaccines themselves have been extraordinarily safe. Serious adverse reactions have been very rare and the number of deaths after vaccination is vanishingly low.

If we could stand back a bit and take all of this in, wonder would feel like the right response. No generation that has ever lived has been able to predict the long-term consequences of its own behaviour in the way that we can do with climate change. No plague in history has met with such an immediate and dazzlingly effective response.

The scientific method of evidence-based trial and error has been around for a very long time. But it has been supercharged by the vast computational power that is now available to its practitioners.

Aside from its achievements in predicting climate change and creating the Covid vaccine, it also made possible, in 2021, the pinpoint landing on Mars of a rover and a helicopter drone, which then performed the first ever powered flight on another planet; the first direct observation of light from a black hole; and first vaccine against malaria to be endorsed by the World Health Organisation.

Age of Reason

So if there really is an Age of Reason, we are living in it right now. The French revolutionaries turned churches into temples to the Goddess of Reason. We have many more concrete reasons to worship her than they had. She is working miracles, not just in the heavens, but inside our own immune systems.

And yet 2021 was less than a week old when one of the supposed temples of enlightened deliberation, the US Capitol in Washington was stormed by a mob of neo-fascists and conspiracy nuts. This was not a freak event – it was part of an attempted coup by the man who was at the time still the sitting president of the United States.

And it has been valorised by a Republican Party that is now almost entirely captured by what used to be its lunatic fringe. It is not just in the climate that “extreme” has migrated towards “normal”.

Britain, whose scientists performed so impressively in creating the AstraZeneca vaccine, is in the hands of a man whose whole public career has been an assault on the most basic idea of science – the distinction between what is true and what it not.

The loss of any sense of rational self-interest in the Brexit project became ever more evident, but this did nothing to burst the rhetorical balloon of Global Britain as it sailed ever higher into the stratosphere of greatness.

The corruption of language that is one of the side effects of so much lying came over the course of the year to be embodied in increasingly pathetic ways by Boris Johnson, who ended up cracking bad jokes that no one laughed at, making car noises and babbling about Peppa Pig.

The wave of right-wing nationalism across the world has been predicated on 'us first', the idea that a nation can and should assert itself at the expense of all others

Perhaps it was symbolic that Angela Merkel, the dominant figure in European politics for 16 years, left the political stage near the end of 2021. She was, after all, a former professional scientist whose training in physics never quite receded from her political style.

Merkel’s calm, apparently dispassionate approach to politics had been increasingly under strain in recent years. Once upon a time, her quiet dignity, her ability to keep her ego under control and her deep seriousness about public life, seemed almost boring. By the time she departed, they had come to seem, by way of contrast, a cause for wonder.

It is true that 2021 was not a good year for Merkel’s opposites, the “strong man” leaders of the populist right. Trump remains a looming threat to American democracy, but he was, after all, removed from office.

So were Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, one of the pioneers of the contemporary version of this mode of politics, and the populist billionaire Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the right-wing nationalist government in Poland all faced more coherent opposition. It is far too soon to say that the far-right wave is receding but there are some signs that it may be weakening.

Disjunction

But that does not mean that the reign of reason is being restored. The triumphs of science are still strangely divorced from so much of political practice and popular consciousness.

Perhaps this disjunction is the result of something that has worried people for a long time without really being taken seriously: the deep divide between the increasing potency of science on the one hand and its place in society on the other.

This concern grew throughout the 20th century as an anxiety that science was becoming more and more specialised and therefore drifting steadily beyond what used to be called common knowledge.

But a lot of this concern was less about general ignorance and more about the “mad scientist”, the fear that Frankenstein-like men and women in white coats would lose the run of themselves and create monsters.

Those fears are not themselves irrational, but the bigger problem may in fact be the other way around. It is that much of society – and therefore of political culture – has lost touch with the things that underlie scientific method: respect for evidence, a willingness to change ideas that prove to be wrong, the understanding that facts are not “ours” or “theirs” but everyone’s.

But facts do have a way of asserting themselves. Those two big stories of 2021 – the pandemic and climate change – are united by a single fact: interdependence.

In both crises, there is no safety in selfishness. The wave of right-wing nationalism across the world has been predicated on “us first”, the idea that a nation can and should assert itself at the expense of all others.

Huge numbers of people are alive to see in the New Year who would be dead in any other era

The pandemic and the climate catastrophes have made this not just immoral but self-defeating. The cliché that no one is safe until everyone is safe has acquired a vivid truth.

The virus has been especially good at communicating this message. Omicron literally means “small o”, and it has made the little “o” of the Earth look very small indeed.

On this micro-world of ours, inequality is the main vector of disease. The vast numbers of people who have no access to vaccines form a giant breeding ground for Covid variants. Injustice is a medical condition.

It would be nice if we did not need deadly plagues and disastrous fires, floods, droughts and storms to remind us that we live and die together. But obviously we do.

We have to scare ourselves into optimism, to take fright before we galvanise ourselves into doing what is right. The least we can say for 2021 is that its scary movies have been spectacular blockbusters.

And the best we can say for it is that it has shown us that when humanity concentrates its collective mind and uses its powers of reason, it can achieve amazing things. Huge numbers of people are alive to see in the New Year who would be dead in any other era. Even amidst our anxieties, we can raise a cautious glass to the glorious undead.